Vinnie Colaiuta, eulogised by peers and pupils alike, has a talent so big it casts a shadow. Yet he resolutely refuses to cash in. No videos, no ego massage: he's a man, he says, with much still to accomplish. Ronan Macdonald pins down his philosophy, and finds a Sting in the tale...
"The parameters of drumming are being constantly pushed and to my mind, the healthiest way of looking at the situation is that they are being pushed for the overall benefit of music and drumming itself, and not so much for those who did it. As Papa Jo Jones said, "There ain't nothing new under the sun". He was right. There isn't. There really isn't. It's just a huge pool of existence, and some people tap into it and other, they do or they don't or they do it later, and the important thing is that it gets done for the benefit of musical growth overall."
From a man like Vinnie Colaiuta, such words come as a great comfort. Being widely considered the "greatest drummer in the world", it would be all too easy for him to become smug and simply slip into an attitude of, "Yup, I'm the best." But then I suppose it could work the other way; at such extreme heights of notoriety and technical proficiency, perhaps it's easier to be philosophical. Either way, it is obvious that Vinnie has spent a lot of time thinking very hard about this situation, evolving a mellow ideology that is perhaps more worthy or reverence than even his tastiest chops. But enough of this, let's get factual...
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Vinnie attended Berklee at the age of seventeen for one year. No, he wasn't kicked out, he was told by Gary Chaffee to go and start work in New York. He didn't. He stayed in Boston and picked up whatever gigs he could there for a couple of years. Then, in '78, came the big move to LA, and a few months after that the gig with Frank Zappa. This was Vinnie's big break, a three year gig giving him the chance to virtually rewrite the book in terms of technique, polyrhythmic application and just about everything else. After leaving Zappa in '81, he went through a brief lull in the action, but pushed by the likes of Jeff Porcaro and Neil Stubenhaus, it didn't take long for the name Colaiuta to spread like very wild fire indeed.
Since then Vinnie has played on countless records, jingles and soundtracks, but up until this year it seemed that he had given up the joys of the touring life; his last major outing was with Joni Mitchell in '83. However, when Sting comes knocking on your door what can you do? No, even Vinnie couldn't turn that one down.
"Just from experience I think that some people have born leadership qualities – you have certain types of people some of whom are more easy going, while others are more abrasive. I think that whatever kind of assertiveness Sting has as a person he seems to channel in a real positive way. As a band leader he's great because he gives you free rein to play whatever you want, knowing that you're a good enough musician to interpret the music closely to how he thinks it should be. He knows that if you're going to hire sidemen, they're going to be mature enough to play the music for the sake of the music and not just for themselves. If you do that, ultimately you're going to help yourself as a player as opposed to making yourself look good and not knowing why you're doing it, you know? He trusts the instincts of each and every one of us to play whatever we want, and if he doesn't like something, he'll tell us. That's his prerogative, and there's no reason for us to get upset about it because there are right and wrong things to do within certain parameters. Basically, we have a set of parameters and we work within them. He's real good that way, and he also has definite ideas about what he wants in specific segments of certain things, and he's just been really fair that way, real musical."
It seemed to me, having seen the gig, that in the sections where things took a turn for the jazzy, the vibe between Vinnie, Branford and David (Sancious – keys) became noticeabley more... well, vibrant I suppose. Did these moments perhaps make the three jazzers feel more in their element?
"When you say vibrant I assume that what you mean is that the energy level sort of expanded in different directions."
Well, er... of course I did.
"Basically, all that is to me is a chance to improvise more. It's a chance for me to improvise because first of all, obviously, the compositions are a good vehicle for that and, secondly, when you have those kinds of musicians, that's what can happen. Branford definitely creates a lift, and his reply is that he gets it from us, but it's really reciprocal, it works in a circle. It does have a lot to do with our backgrounds. I tell you, Sting himself, make no mistake about it, he's definitely got more than a fair amount of jazz blood in him. He's a very knowledgeable musician and he recognizes the qualities in players in letting them perform, so he allows those performance characteristics to come through. That's really great because if you've got that kind of talent you might as well use it. That's part of why it's so great for me being in that situation: you can just open up. It's the kind of setting which most people would look at as a 'pop' situation because of his image, but if you call that pop, that's pushing the envelope of pop about as far as you can go."
And what of the rest of the set? How did Vinnie approach playing the Police songs and, perhaps more importantly Purple Haze (yes, they played Purple Haze).
"The way that I approach playing something like Purple Haze is... Well, to me that song, the way Hendrix played and the whole band played, captured the essence of what Hendrix was about and it captured the essence of that era. It's like a shap-shot of then and that time, and what they were saying then was very important, it was crucial to the song and the way it should sound. What I don't do is to try and consciously 'nineties' upgrade it because I don't feel that it needs an upgrade. I play the way that I play. I'm not Mitch Mitchell and I can only simulate how he played. I'm not going to sit there and try to play like Mitch Mitchell. I'll honour it, but it's not a full-blown imitation."
Respect where respect's due I suppose. How about the Police tracks? Surely that's a different situation given they are actually Sting's own songs rather than covers.
"As far as the Police tracks go, it's the same kind of thing."
So it's not really a different situation at all, then?
"I wouldn't call it the same kind of situation, but it's like, they all had strong identities so I'm not going to sit there and imitate Stewart Copeland - that's the last thing Sting would want me to do anyway. At the same time there's a specific identity that those songs have which is greater than the sum of their parts. So if I approach it with that attitude instead of just homing in on the way Stewart played it, then I can pay homage to that. But at the same time those songs are an open book, as are all of Sting's songs. He did a remake of 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' that was a lot different to the way The Police did it. Sting's concept is that when you do an album it's a point of departure, and for me, I kind of look at a record as two things. One of the things it is, is a documentation that has to hold up because you're documenting a song, though some songs can be interpreted in many different ways and if a song is a good song it can hold up regardless of instrumentation. Like Zappa used to say, you wouldn't try to assimilate 'Purple Haze' right off the top of your head with a bassoon playing the melody and an accordian playing the changes; It might be funny for a minute, but no. We just adhere to certain parameters."
The thing that seems to separate Vinnie from other drummers of his genre is his temperament. I mean sure, players like Steve Smith and Dave Weckl have it down where chops, time keeping and all the rest of it are concerned, but none of them have the fire that accompanies Vinnie's technical brilliance. I know, you've heard it all before, how he's constantly 'taking his music to the edge' or 'walking the thin line between perfection and whatever is beyond'. Yes, is all sounds like editorial bullshit, but watching him play for the photo-session I can confirm that, in this case, the editorial bullshit really is true. I'm not going to get bogged down with dubious superlatives here, but suffice to say Vinnie is quite simply the most breathtaking drummer in the world.
"The reason why I play the way I do is that at one point for a specific length of time I pushed myself, and also that's just part of my identity. I think that what happens is that after you go through a learning process, so to speak, you realise that it's natural to play one way and it's maybe not natural to play another way. Somebody may do something that everyboddy thinks is new and they catch on to this person but meanwhile there's a lot of unsung heroes. Just because a guy has some fast chops and he knows some hot licks, that doesn't mean that he would be able to move me in the way that somebody else would. That's kind of how I look at it now; it's like, how much does all that shit matter? How much does it matter?"
"That's why I think competition is good if it's healthy, but unfortunately the kind of competition that gets propagated is not healthy because it's all for the sake of... I don't know... For example: you stage these drumming contests and somebody sponsors them to make the sponsors look good, and they say, 'Well, we're going to have a big battle.' It's like a cock-fight, it's always attracted people. The problem is that music doesn't exist in that world. It doesn't exist in that realm. You could have a certain level of technique and concentration and just be having a shitty day, so what does that mean?"
You may suddenly wake up one day and find yourself playing things that you never played before, so are you going to say, 'Well, I should have entered that contest today'? Or, 'I should have been there today because I ate onions'? That's another reason questions like: 'What is the best?' and 'Who's better than who?' are pointless."
Everybody take note.
"You go into a studio, and if you are a sensitive player you will react to your environment. What happens if you play in a similar environment with people you've never worked for and everybody has a different concept about what music should be? Are you going to sit there and say, 'Well, no, I'm so good, this is how it should be'? It's going to affect your performance. It's going to affect how you interpret things. You can't fight an uphill battle."
"Have you seen classic cases of all-star bands where everybody's out there for themselves? I mean, come on! You've got so much firepower that there's no cohesiveness, there could never be any synergy."
So what makes a great drummer? Obviously Vinnie is the man to ask.
"I think great drummers are drummers who command enough of the instrument so that their musical sensibilities and developed intuitions can just exist for the music. They just play without any kind of preconceived limitiations that maybe they've imposed on themselves."
"It also depends on the criteria; Art Blakey was a great drummer. Elvin Jones is a great drummer. Buddy Rich was a great drummer. Pete Erskine's a great drummer. All the guys: Smith, Dave... They're all great. It's like..."
Vinnie's eyes take on an almost worrying intensity as he grapples for something concrete.
"A great drummer is someone for whom the basic precepts are almost granted: like, your time is very developed; your instincts are developed; your interpretations; your intuitions; your ability to read other people; your basic skills, like reading... Things that are all in place so that your identity can surface. That to me is great. You should make a statement that is there because it's supposed to be there rather than because it's hot. It's kind of hard to put my finger on that. There are times when I sit and think about it much more than at other times. I'm not really at an evaluative stage."
But surely there must have been a stage where you had a favourite drummer - someone who you wanted to be. In fact, aren't I right in saying it was Tony Williams?
"Yeah, he still is my hero. There are several drummers who move me, and I think that if you're moved emotionally then that's something that really counts. That's the ultimate thing that can happen that way. Tony Williams is my favourite drummer."
"Just the way he plays, there's not one thing. His persona really comes across as a drummer. I've had discussions where I've pondered whether you can actually separate what you are as a person from the drums. I think a big part of Tony's persona translates into him as a player. I've seen him in situations where he was hot and cold. I love the fact that he just exists for the moment on the drums and however he feels he just plays that way, but you can never say that it's great or it's shitty, it's always him, it's always Tony. He just is who he is and I love his approach to the instrument. To me he was always a creative genius of the drums."
As you've probably guessed, I caught up with Vinnie during his time over here on the Sting tour. In fact, when I finally tracked him down (and it wasn't easy) he was at Livingston Studios in Wood Green doing a session for Everything But The Girl. I suppose the question that has to be asked of such a consummate artist as Vinnie is whether he ever finds the rigid parameters of session drumming at all constricting.
"Sometimes. The only time is if I know the producer is blatantly wrong and going against my grain musically. Session players tend to pull things out of their bag of tricks, and I like to have an open mind and not necessarily do that. So if a guy asks me to play something that I wouldn't have thought of, I'll always try to assimilate it as best I can. Other times I'll think to myself, 'Why does he want me to play this?' But I may have to cringe and go through with it anyway. But mostly it doesn't happen and I don't feel constricted."
The variety of sessions Vinnie plays is, to say the least, diverse. One day he may be playing for a cigarette ad and the next he'll be sweating it with John Patitucci. What does he like doing best?
"To me there's only two kinds of music: good and bad. That's because there's heartfelt music and there's music that's not heartfelt, or just badly composed. So it doesn't really matter what genre it is, but at the same time, yeah, I like to play. That's why being involved with Sting right now is so great, because the music is so good, and he's such a great singer and player. So it's a great situation. But you know, playing with John is terrific and I love doing that. I love music that allows me to be creative and spontaneous, but not where it's complicated. I really like touching, beautiful harmony and rhythms that just make my whole body and soul vibrate. So, harmonically I want to be moved emotionally and rhythmically, I want it to set my spirit in motion, and there's a lot of ways that that can manifest itself. If those conditions exist in music, that's what I like to be involved in. That's kind of an overview, but it's not difficult to imagine what that kind of music is - it could be vocal or it could be instrumental."
So you're a bit of a jazzer really aren't you Vinnie?
"Yeah, I admit it man, I'm a jazzer, I really am. It's not something I want to hide. But I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin too.
The thing that surprises me most about Vinnie's attitude is the way in which he seems to refuse to fall into the commercial groove and make a small fortune cashing in on his reputation. What with all the money-making opportunities open to musicians today, Vinnie's cashflow could probably be increased quite seriously by the odd video or solo album. But no, a man of solid principles, he has made no such ventures as of yet...
"There's been a lot of things that I've consciously baulked at, like why don't I have a video out yet? Why don't I have my own drumsticks? Why don't I have a record out yet? The answer to the first question is because I've consciously made a decision not to do a video. Why don't I have my own sticks out yet? Because we have not arrived at a model that I like better than a 5B. Simple. And I'm not going to try and be some big man and go, 'Hey, look at me, I'm important!' That's just not in my make-up. Market it and people will think I'm some big shot. I'm already kind of there in a way. I'm not saying that I'm a big shot but I already have a certain kind of stature and to me that just means that I'm appreciated."
"As far as a record goes: firstly, I don't have a manager; secondly, my music is pretty eclectic; and thirdly, I haven't pushed it probably as hard as I could have. The most important thing is that I don't know if there's a company out there that would be willing to risk promoting something that eclectic, because it's not slick funk/fusion type A. It's not that, it's out, man. I'm not saying it's the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but I like a lot of different directions. I'm not expecting them to beat my doors down either, but I want to have the right situation. In a way, it's been good, because over a certain period of time I've grown as a player and a writer, and I don't want to wait too long, but I want to make a statement that I'm comfortable with, and I realise that it's not going to make me a multi-millionaire either."
"The great thing about being a sideman, so to speak, is that there are a lot of responsiblities that may not be a lot of fun that you have to deal with."
Can you expand a little on why you haven't done a video? Surely that actually has a purpose unlike the stick thing, which is obviously fairly pointless.
"I felt that there were too many videos out. I felt that there were too many on the market and I didn't want to just become a can of Campbell's soup, you know what I mean? I just have certain concepts about it that I adhere to, but at the same time one never knows how long one's going to live and I may be a better player next year than I am now or who knows if I'll even be playing... I hope that I'll be playing! That's started to creep into my head a little bit lately, so I'm starting to turn a little bit the other way. But that's why I haven't done one in the past."
Personally, I'm very sceptical about the whole video thing. I think it gets students into bad habits and essentially gives players an excuse to show-off on screen at an extortionate cost to the punter. Obviously, the view of the populace doesn't reflect that since videos sell, but calling them tutor videos strikes me as a bit of a joke. Vinnie begs to differ...
"No, I think it's great! It's just that kids that are impressionable have to understand that they're likely to take just about everything they hear as the gospel, as opposed to saying, 'Well, this guy's different; he has a different physical make-up and he's come from a different background.' They tend to confuse different people's... belief systems as the gospel. It just doesn't work that way, and sometimes the issue can get confused and you have to see through that. So a guys puts out a video and thinks it's going to be good for him, just like a guy who gets a drum endorsement says, 'Oh yeah, I got an endorsement, I got free drums!' In a lot of ways, if you want to do it just to get the free equipment, then you're going to be sorry about what you're doing. It doesn't benefit you. I know a lot of guys who play what they want to play, and they just create their own thing."
I have to admit to a little apprehension at the prospect of interviewing Vinnie. Having to meet a man frequently cited as the world's finest drummer and somehow talk to him, without being sycophantic or offhand, could have been decidedly tricky. But no, the fact is that Vinnie is not your average interview. His converstaional idiom verges on the eccentrically inspired and at times you really are pushed to follow his thread. That's not to say that some of the things he says don't make sense, rather that the way his thoughts seem to progress is by no means linear.
His views on the state of the music scene at the moment are at times amusing at times depressing, but always salient. And as for his playing... Oh Lordy. In fact, before Vinnie closes this piece with some advice for the aspiring (perspiring?) sessioneer, I'd just like to point out that the tape transcription of this interview was easily the hardest i've ever had to edit. I just wish there had been room for it all...
"First of all, you have to be steeped in reality and the reality is the fact that, you know, we've all been really young at one point and had our parents say, 'Be realistic, there's a lot of competition.' That used to always make me livid, because I would always say, 'I don't care how much competition there is, I want to do this!' If you're going to let that deter you... well, you can't, there's so many factors involved. The most important thing is to not give up because you could be really close to it, but on the other hand you could get to a certain age where you've been maybe struggling for fifteen, twenty years and not got to another echelon, in which case you have to stop and reassess why it didn't happen. You have to tell yourself, 'Well, look, I'm not a failure because it didn't happen the way I wanted it to, but I'm a success because I'm still doing what I want to do,' and you have to mould it to whatever your life is at that time. There's a lot of truth and a lot of hope and inspiration in the phrase, 'Don't give up.'"
I do enjoy watching photo sessions, but since watching Vinnie play is rather deflating at the best of times, after a while I just couldn't take any more. As I wandered aimlessly around the studio, who should I bump into hiding behind a glowing MIDI rack but Ben Watt of Everything But The Girl fame. Makes sense really, considering that's who Vinnie was supposed to be working with at the time. With swift resolve I pounced upon him and asked what it's like to work with the great man.
"He's really relaxed about it all. He's really confident about his playing, he wants it to be really good and he won't go until it is. But, because he's great anyway, it's not really a problem. He's got big ears for his own work. He's really keen for it to be right. He'll play what you want him to play if you ask him, but he'll be inventive if you're running out of ideas. If you play him something that someone else has played, he doesn't mind copying that as a starting point and then developing it into something new again. That's reall good; you sometimes imagine that players will come in and just give you their sound and that's it. He's pretty casual about it all. Everything is like, 'What's happenin' dude?' It's just a really cool atmosphere.""
Does he stick rigidly to what's asked of him?
"Well, we only know him from records that we all like, like Joni Mitchell, but he knows the ropes. He's done terrible sessions down the years where he's had to play to clicks and repeat parts that other people have played, etc. He was telling me about a track that he had to do, a jingle where he had to play the funky drummer loop beat for beat and note for note. He was just booked to do it and he did it. Like with most musicians he's open to try anything."
Are you actually aware of his reputation among other drummers?
"When we were working with him in LA, I'd heard all about him, but people had said, 'Oh no, he can play anything, but he's happy to just sit on a groove if you want him to.' It's true. I mean, if you want him to show off all his chops, of course he will, but he knows what's required of certain tracks like any good drummer. He's not just flash for the sake of being flash."
But presumably he has ideas of his own.
"Sure, he's a drummer and it would be stupid of me not to listen to him. In the end, when you're approaching a groove - that final firming process where you decide where the bass drums are going to fall and so on - he's great at making those sort of final, concrete decisions. it's a bit like moulding a sculpture, it gradually hardens and comes together."
And if you had to sum Vinnie up in as few words as possible?
"He's just a dude, that's all there is to it. There are guys like that, and there aren't guys like that. He's just one of them, everything's just a gas. He's a breeze to work with.
Special thanks to John Harrison for sending in this interview.